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STARTING YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT

It is not easy to decide on and define a research problem, and you will not be expected to do so
immediately. The important thing, at this stage, is to know what you are looking for, and to explore your
subject for suitable possibilities. The problem can be defined as:
Dictionary meaning of problem can be: complication, dilemma, dispute, doubt, mystery, teaser or twister.
It does not mean something undesirable or bad. It is a situation in need of a solution, improvement, or
alteration; or a discrepancy between the way things are and the way they ought to be. For example, there
may be a temporary shortage or disagreement or delays in delivery of materials. It may be a feeling of a
discomfort with the way things are, or a discrepancy between what should be and what actually is.
Some problems are blessing in disguise because many useful ideas maybe brought to.
A research problem is usually expressed as a question or statement, which inquires into or deals with the
relation existing between two or more variables.
Problem identification
Problem identification refers to the process of finding or determining what research area is to be studied.
While this is our description of a problem, we can never say that every perceived difficulty warrants its
researchability. Some problems may not require any research undertaking since they require just possible
explanations or solutions. Others may have already known solutions, what is needed is a decision on what
solutions to use and to act on it so as to solve the problem.
First, let us distinguish between two basic types of problems; personal problems and researchable
problems. How to get along with your mother-in-law and how to ask the boss for a salary increase maybe
classified as personal problems but they are not researchable.
A problem is researchable when the following pointers are satisfied:
(1) there is no known answers or solution to it such that a gap in knowledge exists;
(2) there are possible solutions the effectiveness of which is unknown yet
(3) there are answers or solutions the possible result of which maybe seen or maybe factually
contradicting
(4) there are several possible and plausible explanations for the undesirable conditions,
(5) and when the existence of a phenomenon requires a solution.
Ways to Locate a Research Problem
1. Identify broad areas that are closely related to your interests and professional goal and write them
down.
2. Then choose among the areas that relate to your future career, an area or a research topic that is
feasible.
3. Collaborate with other people; join on-going projects.
4. Read text books where rather comprehensive topics in a field are summarized, and problems and
future research needs are identified; journal article for the state of art of the field and authors
recommendations; reviews articles for both.
5. Test a theory.
6. Replication. Replicate major milestone study. Replicate studies using different population,
samples, methods.
7. Observations. Observe carefully the existing practices in your area of interest.
8. Develop research ideas from advanced courses you take.
9. Get ideas from newspaper and popular magazines.
Good Research Problem
Choosing a research problem is not an easy task. This is particularly true to a beginner who does not
know on what bases or criteria a research problem should be judged as good. Let us then discuss the
criteria which are deemed useful in the selection of a good research problem.

1.

the research problem should be of great interest to the researcher. If you have met this
criterion you have already won half of the battle. If a researcher has a great interest to
the research, he will be more motivated and determined to work on it until its completion.
2. a problem should be relevant and useful to a specific group of people. The knowledge
that the result of ones work will be of much use to a group of people provides the
researcher an input or drive with which to pursue the problem until solutions to it are
discovered or known.
3. a good problem is novel. This means that the problem should possess the element of
newness or freshness. This implies that there is originality. Avoiding or doing a study or
topics which have been overstudied, and pursuing those which were not subjected to any
investigation should be encouraged.
4.

a problem should be well-defined or specified. Unless the researcher has all the time,
money, and ability to cover all aspects of social problems, he is expected to set the scope
or limits of his study.

5. a problem should be measurable. If the variables involved in the problem do not allow
measurement, the researcher will have an impossible task of reporting the results or
findings of the study.
6.

a problem is time-bound. This means to say that when the researcher selects a problem,
he should have his projection as regards the time to complete the research.

7.

a problem is good if the study of it will contribute to the refinement of certain


important concepts, creation or improvement of research instruments as analytical
system, and will permit generalizations.

8.

a problem is good and researchable on the basis of the researchers capacity to meet
what it requires: manpower, money, time, and expertise.

The following points may be observed by a researcher in selecting a research problem or a subject
for research.
a) Subject which is overdone should not be normally chosen, for it will be difficult task tot
throw any new light in such a case.
b) Controversial subject should not become the choice of an average researcher.
c) Too narrow or too vague problems should be avoided.
d) The subject selected for research should be familiar and feasible so that the related
research material or sources of research are within ones reach.
e) The importance of the subject, the qualifications, the cost involved, the time factor must
be considered in selecting a problem.
The problem can be generated either by an initiating idea, or by a perceived problem area. For example,
investigation of rhythmic patterns in settlement planning is the product of an idea that there are such
things as rhythmic patterns in settlement plans, even if no-one had detected them before. This kind of idea
will then need to be formulated more precisely in order to develop it into a researchable problem. We are
surrounded by problems connected with society, the built environment, education etc., many of which can
readily be perceived. Take for example social problems such as poverty, crime, unsuitable housing and
uncomfortable workplaces, technical problems such as design deficiencies, organizational problems such
as business failures and bureaucratic bungles, and many subjects where there may be a lack of knowledge which prevents improvements being made, for example, the influence of parents on a childs

progress at school, the relationship between designers and clients. Obviously, it is not difficult to find
problem areas. The difficulty lies in choosing an area which contains possible specific research problems
suitable for the subject of a research project or degree.
SOME COMMON MISTAKES IN RESEARCH
It is worth warning you at this stage of some common mistakes made when a research problem is chosen.
These mistakes arise mainly from the failure to grasp the necessity for the interpretation of data in the
research project. Here are four common mistakes:
1

Making the choice of a problem an excuse to fill in gaps in your own knowledge We all welcome
the chance to learn more for ourselves, but the point of research is not just personal
enlightenment, but making a contribution to public knowledge. Anyone can find a problem which
involves the gathering and duplication of information, but it requires an additional effort to find
one which requires data to be analysed and conclusions to be drawn which are of wider interest.

Formulating a problem which involves merely a comparison of two or more sets of data A
comparison of sets of data or records might fill up many pages (e.g. the average age of marriage
through the centuries), but without any effort to reveal something new from the information, there
is no research activity. The problem should clearly state the objectives behind making the
comparison.

Setting a problem in terms of finding the degree of correlation between two sets of data
Comparing two sets of data to reveal an apparent link between them (e.g. the average age of
marriage and the size of families) might be interesting, but the result is only a number, and does
not reveal a causal connection. This number, or coefficient of correlation, reveals nothing about
the nature of the link, and invites the question so what?
Devising a problem to which the answer can be only yes or no In order to improve on our
knowledge of the world we need to know why things are as they are and how they work. A yes
no solution to a problem skirts the issues by avoiding the search for the reasons why yes or no is
the answer, and the implications which the answer has.

Dissertation/thesis/project topics
The aim of this section is to (a) give you some guidance on finding a potential dissertation topic, and
(b) help you choose a dissertation topic that is achievable and not too broad:
Dissertation titles
The dissertation title is your first opportunity to let the reader know what your dissertation is about. With
just a few words, the title has to highlight the purpose of the study, which can often include its context,
outcomes, and important aspects of the research strategy adopted. But a poorly constructed title can also
mislead the reader into thinking the study is about something it is not, confusing them from the very start.
In our articles on EXPECTATIONS and LEARNING, we explain what the reader expects and learns
from your dissertation title, before setting out the major COMPONENTS that can be included in
dissertation titles. Finally, since your dissertation title should follow a specific written style, which
explains when to capitalise words, which words to capitalise, how to deal with quotation marks,
abbreviations, numbers, and so forth, we provide some guidance in our article on STYLES.

EXPECTATIONS
What readers expect from a dissertation title
There are a number of broad rules to think about when constructing your title. Titles should be (a)
descriptive and explanatory, not general, (b) precise, and (c) internally consistent. In addition, titles
should avoid using (a) abbreviations, acronyms and initials, or (b) a teasing or cute style. These do's and
don'ts are briefly explained below:
Descriptive and explanatory, not general
Each word of your dissertation title carries mean; that is, it helps the reader to understand the core
focus of your dissertation. It should not be general, but rather descriptive and explanatory in
nature. Broadly, the title may help to explain some of the following:
The purpose of the research
The theory (or theories) that underpinned your research
What variables you examined (or tested)
Your research design (qualitative, quantitative, mixed)
The methodology adopted
The context and/or population studied
ETC...
In the section, we highlight how some of these components are incorporated into titles to help you
understand how to communicate what your dissertation is about is about to the reader simply through the
title.
Precise
Being precise does not simply mean not waffling. Whilst it would be wrong to say that a
dissertation title should be short, it should be concise; that is, you should try and explain what the
nature of your research is in fewest words possible. A good starting point is to use simple word
orders, as well as common word combinations. For example:
You could say
But it would be better to say
The motivation of employees
Stress in the workplace
Users of Facebook
Facebook users
Stress in the workplace
Workplace stress

Internally consistent
A title can be descriptive, explanatory, and even precise, but fail because it does not reflect what
the research is about. In this respect, titles fail to be internally consistent when they make the
reader think that the research is about one thing, when it is really about another. For example,
imagine you included the methodological approach adopted in your title, stating that you used a
"case study approach". The reader would expect to see in your Abstract, Introduction and
Research Strategy chapters (amongst others) the words "case study approach". Whilst this seems
obvious, it is surprising how many students are either inconsistent, or confuse the reader by using
terms interchangeably. This is a problem even amongst academics, but it is easily addressed.
Simply check that each component of your title reflects the research you performed. Being
consistent with the language you use in the title and the rest of the dissertation is a good start.

A title should also avoid using:


Abbreviations, acronyms and initials
Leave the use of any abbreviations, acronyms and/or initials to the main body of the dissertation.
In the title, such abbreviations, acronyms and/or initials could lead to confusion, as well as have
different meanings for different people. In the main body of the dissertation, there is time to
clarify any such abbreviations, acronyms and/or initials.
A teasing or cute style

A teasing or cute style of title can be great. It certainly sparks interest. The examples below
illustrate this:
Dancing with a giant: The effect of Wal-Mart's entry into the United Kingdom in the
performance of European retailers
Dogs on the street, puma on your feet: How cues in the environment influence product
evaluation and choice
Something old, something new: A longitudinal study of search behavior and new product
introduction
Things that go bump in the mind: How behavioral economics could invigorate marketing
However, sometimes a teasing or cute title style can be confusing and makes it harder for the
reader to understand the nature of the dissertation before reading your abstract.
LEARNING
What the reader learns from a dissertation title
The person reading your dissertation should be able to understand the core principles and focus of your
research just from reading the dissertation title. This is because each word of your dissertation title carries
meaning. Understanding this skill is important not only in creating your own dissertation title, but being
able to rapidly search the literature for useful articles to support your own work. This section deconstructs two existing titles to illustrate some of the things that can be learnt from titles
The main components of dissertation title
Dissertation titles are made up of a number of components. Each of these components tells the reader
something about your research. Think of a component as a single word (or just 2-3 words) that convey
something meaningful about your research. This may be the focus of your research, the main theory or
theories adopted, your chosen methodology, research design or methods, the population that you studied,
where the research was conducted, what variables you used, and so forth. The purpose of this section is to
illustrate the main components of some existing titles to research papers so that you can understand what
the reader is able to learn from a dissertation title.
Title examples
We view the two example titles below as having two main parts. Before explaining this, take a look at the
titles:
Example1: Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in
Kenya
Example 2: Problems with partnerships at work: Lessons from a Kenyn case study
The two main parts of these titles are the area of interest (and focus) of the research, which we group
together, and the methodological components that the researchers want to draw attention to. Looking at
these titles again, we've put the area of interest (and focus) in blue and the methodological components in
green.
Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in Kenya
Problems with partnerships at work: Lessons from an Kenya case study
We can now break-down the area of interest (and focus), and methodological components further to
illustrate the main points the title is telling us about the research. We have highlighted these components
using [bold text]

Example #1
Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in Kenya
Barriers [focus] to Internet banking adoption [area of interest]: A qualitative study [qualitative research
design] among corporate customers [population] in Kenya [situated nature of the study]
The title explains that the area of interest is Internet banking adoption. However, the particular focus of
the research on Internet banking adopting is the barriers to such adoption. We immediately understand
the focus of the research. It is not about the rate of Internet banking adoption or the success factors for
Internet banking adoption. Therefore, we would expect the research not to focus on any of these other
aspects of Internet banking adoption, but instead, the barriers to Internet banking adoption. In the second
part of the title, the authors emphasize the methodological components of the research. By stating it was a
qualitative study, we would expect that the research design used was a qualitative one, not a quantitative
one or a mixed-methods research design. When reading about the research methods used in the study, we
would anticipate that these were qualitative methods (e.g. interviews, focus groups). The authors also
emphasized the population being studied, which were corporate customers, and the location (situated
nature) of the study; in this case, Kenya. Clarifying the population in the title is useful because many
readers may expect a study on Internet banking adoption to focus on consumers like you or me, not
corporate customers. Stating the location of the research, Kenya, is also understandable, because countrybased factors such as economic development, telecommunication infrastructure, government policy, and
so forth, have a significant impact on the barriers to Internet banking adoption. Therefore, the reader
understands that the findings of the research will be explained in the context of this specific location.
Now let's look at a similar example with a twist. As with the example above, remember that the area of
interest (and focus) is displayed in blue and the methodological components are displayed in green.
Example 2
Problems with partnerships at work: Lessons from an Kenya case study
Problems [focus] with partnerships [area of interest]at work [population, situated nature of the study]:
Lessons [proposed outcome]from an Kenya [situated nature of the study] case study [methodology]
We have chosen this second example because it is so similar in structure to the first example, but with one
important addition; it highlights the proposed outcome of the research. The title illustrates that the focus
of the research is on the problems associated with partnerships, which is the area of interest. In terms of
the methodological components, the population being studied are partnership at work, clarifying that such
partnerships are not at home, in a relationship, and so forth. The authors also state that this is a Kenya
case study, emphasizing the situated nature of the study (a Kenyan firm or a firm in Kenya) and the
methodology being used, the case study approach. However, as mentioned, it also highlights the proposed
outcome of the research, which are lessons; in other words, the research not only focuses on the problems
with partnerships, but also aims to provide the reader with lessons that could address such problems.
Therefore, we would expect the research to focus not just on the problems with partnerships, but also the
lessons learnt from the case study that could help address such problems.
The main components of a dissertation title
A dissertation title should have a number of components, with each component telling the reader
something about your research. Whilst there are a wide range of components that can be used in a
dissertation title, you will only need to choose those that are most appropriate for your research; that is,
those components that capture the essence of your research. This article describes each of these
components, providing examples of titles for greater clarity.

Your area of interest and the focus of your research

The outcome(s) of your


research

Important components of your research


strategy
Your area of interest and the focus of your research
All dissertation titles should include is the purpose of the research. When you think about how to explain
this in a dissertation title, it may help to think about the purpose of your research in two ways: (a) your
area of interest; and (b) the focus of your research.
Your area of interest is the broader theme or topic that your dissertation addresses, whilst the focus is the
particular angle or aspect of that theme or topic that you are tackling. In some cases, the area of interest
will be a theory (or theories) that underpin your research. In the example titles below, we illustrate the
areas of interest in blue text and the focus in green text.
Barriers to Internet banking adoption: A qualitative study among corporate customers in Kenya
Problems with partnerships at work: Lessons from Kenya case study
The direct marketing-direct consumer gap: Qualitative insights
Success factors for destination marketing web sites: A qualitative meta-analysis
Networking as marketing strategy: A case study of small community businesses
Mentoring women faculty: An instrumental case study of strategic collaboration
Consequences of the psychological contract for the employment relationship: A large scale survey
The dynamic nature of conflict: A longitudinal study of intragroup conflict and group performance
Sometimes an area of interest is sufficiently narrow that you do not need to distinguish between this and a
particular focus within that area. Areas of interest remain in blue text.
Organisational knowledge leadership: A grounded theory approach
Organisational citizenship behaviour of contingent workers in Kenya
In other cases, you may feel that the particular focus of an area of interest is not amongst the most
important aspects of your research. Since you have a limited word count for titles, perhaps you consider
another component (e.g., some part of the research strategy) to be more important. As a result, you could
choose to include only the area of interest in your dissertation title [see blue text].
An empirical investigation of signalling in the motion picture industry
Furthermore, you may have multiple areas of interest, which either provide greater overall focus for your
dissertation title or make it impractical to also include the particular focuses for each of these. Alternately,
your focus may be sufficiently narrow and recognizable that you do not need to include the broader area
of interest. Either of these explanations could have been the case in the following titles. We highlight the
potential larea of interest or f ocus in red text.
Business corruption, public sector corruption, and growth rate: Time series analysis using Kenyan
data
Corporate governance, ownership and bank performance in emerging markets: Evidence from Kenya
and Uganda Ukraine

High-involvement work practices, turnover and productivity: Evidence from East Africa
Business networks, corporate governance and contracting in the mutual fund industry
EXERCISE 1
Examine the following texts, which were written by researchers to describe their research subjects, and
decide whether they contain any of the characteristics of research using scientific method. If you can find
them in the texts, summarize in a few words the following:
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)
(e)

the main question or problem


the main goal or objectives of the research
how the research work was done
the main conclusion(s)
the main argument followed.

Was the text clearly written, making the characteristics (a)(e) easy to find, or did you have to search
carefully to find them amongst all the words? Briefly describe the difficulties, if you experienced any.
TEXT ONE
We need light to see around us and colour to add beauty to our lives. The effect on us of light, however,
goes beyond our everyday assumptions and expectations. Rikard Kuller, in his Annotated Bibliography,
listed 1700 references on the psychophysiological effects of light. In both scientific and aesthetic
accounts, colours have been classified according to their purported effects on humans. Hues such as
orange, red and yellow are seen to be exciting and stimulating, while blue, turquoise and green are
regarded as calming and relaxing.
To counter criticism of these views, Robert Gerard showed in his studies in 1958 that the different effects
of blue and red on the organism could be measured by changes in the central and automatic nervous
systems. Ali, in 1972, supported these findings by demonstrating differing levels of cortical arousal
following the shining of blue and red light directly into the eyes of ten normal subjects for six minutes. A
different approach taken by Lars Sivik (1970) demonstrated, using photo-simulation techniques, that
chromatic strength rather than hue affects the exciting or calming properties of a colour. Kuller (1972)
using full-scale spaces showed that strong and weak colours appeared exciting and calming respectively.
The approaches of these four studies were very different. The first and second used physiological
measures using coloured light whilst the other two used semantic differential analysis using pigments as
the colour stimulation. The first two showed pure coloured light in a laboratory setting, the second two
colour in the context of indoor and outdoor settings. This study aims to bridge the gap between these sets
of experiments. Surface pigments in real environments were used, with long exposure periods, using
alpha rhythms recorded on EEG and EKG recordings to assess the level of arousal. The objective of the
setting was to make a closer simulation of the real-life experience of the subjects.
Twenty-four subjects were exposed to four conditions in a room-sized environment: a completely red
visual field, a completely blue visual field, a visual field with the left part blue and the right part red, and
vice versa, each for twenty minutes. The measures of chromatic strength and lightness of the blue and red
were identical. The data collected were analysed by means of several analyses of variance.
The most notable result of this study was that the central nervous system showed no significant
differences when red and blue spaces were experienced. These results support, by the addition of
confirming physiological data, Siviks and Kullers findings that, chromatic strength and lightness being
controlled, colour hues do not affect excitement. This information will have important implications for
design, as it contradicts the guidance given in design manuals.

TEXT TWO
The lasting influences of a persons position in the order of birth in a family have been the subject of an
extended and heated discussion in sociology and other disciplines. In response to Sulloways (1996) Born
to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, there has been an increase in interest in the
likely influences of the order of birth on social attitudes. In comparison with the variables of gender, class
or race, Sulloway found, through the use of quantitative and historical data, that birth order is a better
predictor of social attitudes. His original theory attests that the influence of the order of birth is pervasive
across time and society.
This study uses current data to test Sulloways assertion that adults who were born the first in families are
more authoritative and conservative and less subtle than those born later. Taking 24 measures of social
attitudes from the General Social Survey (GSS), an examination of cases resulted in no evidence to
support these assertions, neither in terms of significant effects nor even in terms of the direction of nonsignificant coefficients. As a result of further research, it was found that comparable results were obtained
using all (202) relevant attitudinal items on the GSS yields.
As a result, it was concluded that variables rejected by Sulloway, such as family size, race, gender and
social class, were all more strongly linked to social attitudes than was the order of birth. Therefore it can
be inferred that theories relating to the order of birth in families might better be considered more modestly
in terms of slight influences in limited areas and in specific societies.
TEXT THREE
While the group self-build housing process is widely regarded as being an effective method of reducing
the costs of acquiring accommodation, a review of literature indicated that the self-build option was not
generally available to people in Britain who were most likely to be in housing need, i.e. those who had
low incomes and low levels of building and managerial skills. Since 1980, this problem has been
recognized in several pioneering group self-build housing projects, where innovations aimed at lowering
the levels of income and skills required of the self-builders were introduced. However, no systematic
analysis of the application and effectiveness of these innovations had been made. Necessary feedback for
subsequent projects was therefore lacking.
An examination of the history and of the theoretical debate around self-help and self-build housing found
a wide diversity of activities and interpretations and concluded that any analysis of a self-help housing
project or movement must embrace an awareness of the context in which it operates and the motives
underlying the methods used in order that a valid interpretation of the process and its outcomes can be
made.
The context and motives behind recent self-build activities in Britain were investigated, and the analysis
of recent innovations in group self-build housing in Britain was structured by the formulation of a general
question about the effectiveness of the innovative methods, and of three derived questions which centred
on the three fundamental procedures of the self-build process: funding, design and management. As a
response to these questions, nine selected recent innovative group self-build projects were studied to
provide a detailed comparative analysis of the characteristics of the innovations, and their effectiveness in
lowering the income and skill thresholds of the self-build process.
It was concluded that innovations in the self-build process had succeeded in reducing, and in some cases
virtually obviating, the levels of income and initial skills required of the self-builders. The procedures of
funding, design and management were found to be highly interdependent, and that innovations in funding
and design required a specific response in the management procedure in order to make them effective.
Though innovative techniques have enabled the group self-build process to be an effective method of
producing social housing, the process was found to be complex and requiring government funding and
support to make the projects viable, to protect the self-builders from the full effects of market forces and

to guarantee their income levels. Because of the complexity of the process, extensive professional support
was required to initiate projects and to guide the self-builders.
From these conclusions, recommendations were made about the sectors in which additional public
support is required and how improvements in the availability of information about successful innovations
in the group self-build housing process could be made.

EXERCISE TWO
Consider the following short sentences claiming to be research problems and decide whether they are
researchable, and are a feasible proposition for an individual student, like yourself, to undertake for a
research degree or as a research project. Respond first with the answers yes, no or possibly. Then, if
you think that the research problem is not viable or will present difficulties, briefly give your reasons.
1

An enquiry into the history of the building of the Channel Tunnel.

A study to compare the results in school history exams for 16-year-olds throughout Europe
between 1970 and 1980.

The effects of parent unemployment on their childrens attitude to schoolwork.

The relationship between temperature, humidity and air movement in the cooling effect of
sweating on the human skin.

The effects of using glass of different thickness and qualities in single, double and triple glazing.

What factors must be evaluated and what is their relative importance in constructing a formula for
allotting grants to university students in Scotland.

An analysis of the influence of Palladios villa designs on large country houses built in Britain in
the eighteenth century.

Whether the advantages of foreign borrowing by Third World countries outweigh the
disadvantages.

The composition of prefabricated elements of buildings in the construction of multi-storey car


parks in tight urban situations in large conurbations of the United States of America during the
1970s.

10 A study of how hospital patients recovery is affected by the colour of their surroundings and of
how they react to the effects of different light levels after major operations.
11 An enquiry to identify and evaluate the causes of sick building syndrome in order to indicate
possible methods of avoiding the occurrence of this syndrome in new buildings.
12 The impact of local tax and exaction policies on the London commercial office sector.
13 Economic implications of the programme of rental increases and housing sales in China.

14 How the career plans of school leavers compare with their subsequent careers in terms of selfsatisfaction and self-adjustment, and what information the analysis of the difference between
planned and realized careers provides to assist in career planning.